Do not answer a fool according to his folly, or you will also be like him.
Answer a fool as his folly deserves, that he not be wise in his own eyes.
It’s so easy to respond, but so difficult to respond the right way.
Over the past few months, I have gravitated toward several blogs written by profound men of the faith. Most of them regularly focus on current issues which have generated controversy in the evangelical world. What encourages me is that the writers have learned how not to let their theological opponents define the core assumptions of the argument.
Most notable is Doug Wilson, in his excellent debate with Christopher Hitchens. As I read through this debate, I kept retracing Wilson’s steps as he carefully navigated to the core assumptions of Hitchens’ points and questioned their validity. The written debate is far superior to the spoken one, because it is much more difficult to wield text in a deceptive way than it is the spoken word. Wilson went through Hitchens’ arguments methodically in a way that made sense to his reader.
It takes courage, no doubt, to embark upon such a debate. But I appreciated how biblical Wilson’s approach was. He did not seek to embarrass Hitchens, condescend, or write merely in a way Christians the would get Christians to agree with him. His responses answered Hitchens’ folly as his folly deserved. In short, Hitchens argued from a naturalistic world-view that Christianity corrupts human activity. Wilson responded by showing that a naturalistic world-view carries no certain condemnation of anything, so Hitchens’ attack on Christianity (or even on hypocritical Christians) carries no weight other than Hitchens’ own moral prejudices, which have no authoritative basis.
In the realm of ideological battle, it takes skill to argue like Wilson does. But I believe it takes even more skill to practice Proverbs 26:4-5 in day-to-day human relationships. How should you respond when someone criticizes your character or conduct? How should you voice such criticisms when you see folly in other people?
A few verses come to mind:
“A gentle answer turns away wrath, but a harsh word stirs up anger.” (Proverbs 15:1) If you’re going to respond to either someone’s offense or criticism (or offensive criticism), God would have you be gentle. This is difficult for me because I’m very quick to vindicate myself with passion. But oftentimes the truth is veiled by such enthusiasm for one’s own cause. It is much more likely that if you’re right, someone will see that if you present your case gently.
Another verse which speaks to this matter is Proverbs 15:28: “The heart of the righteous ponders how to answer, but the mouth of the wicked pours out evil things.” It bears a close similarity to James 1:19-20 “…But everyone must be quick to hear, slow to speak and slow to anger; for the anger of man does not achieve the righteousness of God.” A biblical response ponders, but this pondering is not aimless, thoughtless, or insincere; rather, the man or woman of God ponders how to answer. Take some time, weigh the different viewpoints in your mind. Examine them carefully and slowly. Even when things seem clear, your audience will appreciate this more than a quick retort.
How about Proverbs 23:9: “Do not speak in the hearing of a fool, for he will despise the wisdom of your words.” Ever thought of silence as an option? If you think the person you’re talking to is a fool…
One thing to not do: “He who goes about as a slanderer reveals secrets, therefore do not associate with a gossip.” (Proverbs 20:19) Gossiping is condemned in five different epistles in the NT. The Bible teaches that those juicy nuggets are the product of slanderous people. If you see folly in someone else, the first thing you should do is take it to them personally; you should never tell others who would have their perception of that person lowered by learning about it (James 4:11). Jesus said, “If your brother sins, go and show him his fault in private; if he listens to you, you have won your brother.” (Matthew 18:15) Only after that fails are we to tell someone else (v. 16) and try to resolve the matter. Finally, if that fails, we should notify the church (v. 17).
I think Galations 5:25-6:5 aptly summarizes the main principles in Scripture about responding to folly:
If we live by the Spirit, let us also walk by the Spirit. Let us not become boastful, challenging one another, envying one another. Brethren, even if anyone is caught in any trespass, you who are spiritual, restore such a one in a spirit of gentleness; each one looking to yourself, so that you too will not be tempted. Bear one another’s burdens, and thereby fulfill the law of Christ. For if anyone thinks he is something when he is nothing, he deceives himself. But each one must examine his own work, and then he will have reason for boasting in regard to himself alone, and not in regard to another. For each one will bear his own load.